As Hickenlooper Sees It, Infrastructure Is The One Thing That Can Undo Colorado’s Success
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told Colorado Matters that if the state doesn't find new money for improvements to roads and bridges, as well as transit upgrades, it could undermine a major reason he got into politics.
"I spent the last seven years of my life — the last 14 years of my life if you include when I was [Denver's] mayor — working as hard as I can to cut red tape and bureaucracy, and figure out ways to create jobs, right, to help entrepreneurs start businesses, help businesses grow," Hickenlooper said during a wide-ranging interview.
"If we don't have the infrastructure, then in a funny way it's almost like I've been working against myself, right? That success ends up creating congestion and making people unhappy, rather than really creating the jobs for their children and their grandchildren that were intended to make them happy."
He especially sees an "urgent" need for more infrastructure spending in the context of metro Denver's proposal to land Amazon's second headquarters.
He doesn't believe the bid included promises to Amazon that the state would make certain upgrades to reduce congestion or improve transit options, but, "The state needs to deal with the traffic anyway... I mean, Amazon has nothing to do with the sense of urgency we should all have."
So far state and local governments that worked on the proposal to Amazon have not made its contents public. Hickenlooper said he believes that much of it will be made public eventually, though he declined to give a timeline.
"Aside from the confidential financial information that individual property owners supply on condition of anonymity, the overall, you know what the pitch is and how all that looks like, I am quite sure that will be revealed to the public," he said.
On Facebook, we asked, "Are you for or against Amazon's new headquarters coming to Denver, eventually bringing 50,000 jobs — and people — to the area?" We posed two of those question to the governor:
Wayne Seltzer, an engineer and software consultant who teaches at CU Boulder, asks: "The Front Range is already suffering from a lack of water, clean air, affordable housing and transportation resources. I’m wondering: how would Amazon and 50,000 employees help solve this problem? Has the governor done the math on this tough problem?"
Hickenlooper: "I mean water – just bluntly, we’ve got challenges with water. We are a semi-arid climate. ... Transportation I look at 100 times more serious than water. We’ll figure out water. We have a long way we can still go in terms of conservation and water’s not my – I don’t lie awake at night around water, but some of the affordable housing, I agree. These are all high-paying jobs or not all, but the average median income is pretty high. We’re going to have a responsibility, which we do already, right. Again, this is just going to increase an existing problem, but we’re already looking at how do we get more incentives – the maximum bang for the buck in creating more affordable housing, new affordable housing."
Drew Allen, an architect in Denver, asks: "We already have a very great place to live and I think that bringing a company in to have a second headquarters, such as Amazon, helps to elevate the status of our city on a national and a global scale." But he wonders whether the proposal includes any commitments from the metro area or the state for roads or public transit?
EPA chief Scott Pruitt has been criticized for an August trip to the Gold King Mine. He was offered the use of a state plane, but opted for a private plane instead:
"I think they were worried – they were far enough away from where our plane was that the additional delay – we wouldn’t have been able to have time. We had a press conference scheduled in Durango. So he was worried that we would not have time to get up to the mine, really see it firsthand and get back to the press conference, and truth be known, we probably would have been twenty minutes later and we probably wouldn’t have been able to go to the mine, and it’s worth pointing out that at the mine, Administrator Pruitt said what all of us really wanted him to say, was – which was that the EPA recognizes their mistake and said that they would take responsibility."
On his office hiring a lobbyist to represent Colorado on Washington, DC:
"We had a new administration coming in. ... In Washington. So with President Trump taking office, we weren’t sure what his priorities would be and we have a lot of issues in Washington that are of crucial importance to us and are worth tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars. And with a whole new cast of executives, all these secretaries are going to be making decisions that affect our industries, our companies, our employees, and we don’t have somebody here working in the governor’s office that is able to and has the capacity to do that kind of lobbying in Washington. We are lucky to have a firm – Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck – I always get the names confused, but we’re lucky to have them, which they’re the – I think the second or third largest lobbying firm in Washington. They’re based in Colorado. You look at the number of projects we need federal support on with transportation, agricultural support, education grants."
Ryan Warner: Governor, welcome back to the program.
Gov. John Hickenlooper: Glad to be back.
RW: Denver’s Economic Development Office has denied journalists’ requests to get a copy of the Amazon proposal, saying it contains confidential commercial and financial data. We have a request into the state and await a reply. The state worked closely with the metro area on this bid. Do you think it’s right not to let the public see what’s in this?
JH: Well I think the public will, aside from the confidential financial information, that individual property owners supply and supply that information on condition of anonymity, the overall – what the pitch is and how all that looks like, I am quite sure that that will be revealed to the public.
RW: When? Can we have that now?
JH: Well – but they’ve asked to – Amazon has asked to keep this off on the down low, right. In other words, they’re not publicizing, they don’t want us to publicize it. So we don’t want to compromise our efforts to succeed. If we’re going through all this trouble, we want to put our best foot forward.
RW: So it’s not just a question of what’s in the proposal. It’s also that Amazon is saying, “Keep this mum for” -
JH: No, no. I don't know – they’re not talking about it publically, right and implicit in that – I’m not sure they’ve said anything to us, but implicit in that is that we’re not going out there and broadcasting and trying to make a public statement.
RW: We asked Coloradans for their questions about this bid and many brought up transportation infrastructure and traffic. Drew Allen is one of them; he’s an architect in Denver and in general, he’d be happy to land HQ2.
Drew Allen: We already have a very great place to live and I think that bringing a company in to have a second headquarters, such as Amazon, helps to elevate the status of our city on a national and a global scale.
RW: But he’d like to know: does the proposal include any commitments from the metro area or the state for roads or public transit? Can you speak to that?
JH: Well certainly we can’t make a commitment because in Colorado, the voters make the final commitment, but we certainly have expressed, on multiple occasions, the urgency we feel about resolving some of the transportation issues that are already affecting I-25 and I-70, and that, I’m sure, will be a major discussion during the next General Assembly session that starts in January. Almost everyone – Republican, Democrat – agrees that we’re long past the time when we can make the investments. Well I’ve – on your show, I’ve talked multiple times about how much money Utah spends versus what Colorado spends and we’re twice their population, yet they’re outspending us by four times for what you call expansion revenue – in other words, to build additional lanes, to expand capacity. They spend about $600 million a year; we spend $150 million a year.
RW: So was there a sentiment in the Amazon proposal that said, “We’re trying to grapple with this?”
JH: I don’t remember a sentiment in that sense.
RW: Well, let’s just game this out. If Amazon came to Colorado, how would the state deal with the traffic?
JH: The state needs to deal with the traffic anyway, regardless. We – Amazon, over ten or fifteen years, is going to get to 50,000 people. I mean we’re a – we’re three million people in the metro area, right. So 50,000 plus three million, it’s not going to break the bank. The point of the matter is we have a traffic problem now. Forget about Amazon. It’s – I mean, Amazon has nothing to do with the sense of urgency we should all have. This is an imperative; we have to address our infrastructure issues. I’ve been saying that for a year and a half now.
RW: Well indeed, your administration has advocated for raising more money through taxes or another mechanism to improve roads and bridges, as well as public transit. We recently talked to the head of Metro Denver’s Chamber of Commerce. They’ll push for a sales tax increase to land on next year’s ballot for this. Are you involved in that effort?
JH: Yes, I’m certainly involved in the discussions and certainly -
RW: That sounds very passive.
JH: Well I’m not sure what you want, right, what – how kinetic you want me to be. I try to gesture with my hands whenever I can. We have had multiple discussions with legislators, with the Chamber of Commerce, with a lot of the different aspects of the community. It affects everybody; it affects how long it takes kids to get to school. I think that we are in a position where what that tax looks like, what that – or where that new revenue comes from is something we want to have as much discussion about as possible.
RW: You’re not sold on a sales tax. Is that what I’m hearing?
JH: No, no. I want – here’s my three criteria. I think we need a transportation solution that addresses both the rural and urban transportation issues. I think we want a transportation solution that balances both highways and transit, and I think we want to find a revenue source that everyone can get behind, and those are – all three of those are difficult issues, and it’s going to take a lot of talking. I don’t think the best way is for me to come out and say, “All right, here’s what we should do.”
RW: You used the word “kinetic”. How kinetic might you be in a campaign like this? Well, one example is that you have thrown yourself literally into campaigns that you believe in. I think about the 2005 campaign to loosen the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, when you jumped out of an airplane on camera -
JH: That was kinetic.
RW: With a parachute, of course. Using that as a gauge of your commitment to a ballot measure, is there any type of transportation funding proposal you would jump out of a plane for?
JH: Well I will tell you, that’s about the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life. So I’d look very hard before I’d get – before I’d strap on that parachute again, but you know, I think whatever it will take; if we can find the right initiative, I will throw myself into it hook, line and sinker. I will do everything I can to make sure that as I leave office – because this is going to get built on the next governor’s watch, but I want to make sure that we have the foundation, the momentum, the revenue so that we can solve this problem. Otherwise, I mean I spent the last seven years of my life, the last fourteen years of my life – if you include when I was mayor – working as hard as I can to cut red tape in bureaucracy and figure out ways to create jobs, right, to help entrepreneurs start businesses, to help businesses grow. If we don’t have the infrastructure, then in a funny way, it’s almost like I’ve been working against myself, right, that that success ends up creating congestion and making people unhappy rather than really creating the jobs for their children and their grandchildren that should – that were intended to make them happy.
RW: You’ve heard here, the criteria that any proposal has to meet to have your support. Let’s get back to this idea of Amazon. This is a question from Wayne Seltzer. He’s an engineer and software consultant who teaches at CU Boulder.
Wayne Seltzer: The Front Range is already suffering from a lack of water, clean air, affordable housing and transportation resources. I’m wondering: how would Amazon and 50,000 employees help solve this problem? Has the governor done the math on this tough problem?
RW: How do you consider the implications on the state’s water supply?
JH: I mean water – just bluntly, we’ve got challenges with water. We are a semi-arid climate, but I don’t think that’s our – transportation, I look at 100 times more serious than water. We’ll figure out water. We have a long way we can still go in terms of conservation and water’s not my – I don’t lie awake at night around water, but some of the affordable housing, I agree. These are all high-paying jobs or not all, but the average median income is pretty high. We’re going to have a responsibility, which we do already, right. Again, this is just going to increase an existing problem, but we’re already looking at how do we get more incentives – the maximum bang for the buck in creating more affordable housing, new affordable housing.
RW: And motivating builders to build that, is that what I hear you saying?
JH: Yeah, exactly, providing them the right incentive. So either in the permitting process or in their financing, giving them some benefits so that they will – when they’re building a project, they will make a greater percentage of it affordable.
RW: I think many people would say that balance hasn’t yet been struck.
JH: I would totally agree. I’m – I mean every growing community has this same problem, right. Seattle’s got it and San Francisco’s got it, Phoenix has got it, Austin, Texas and Nashville. We’re in good company. I mean the opposite, the people that don’t have the problem are shrinking, right.
RW: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and this is our regular conversation at the State Capitol with Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper.
JH: I don’t think it’s regular. I mean, I look at these discussions as unique and special.
RW: A lot of irregular – OK. Thank you for that. We recently learned something unique and special about your office. I actually can’t say if it’s unique, but you hire outside lobbyists. You hired one back in February for $210,000 for about a year’s worth of work. The state has its own lobbyists on staff and I wonder: what does hiring an outside lobbyist do for Coloradans? What benefits could constituents see?
JH: Well this was a case – we looked at it, we had a new administration coming in.
RW: In Washington.
JH: In Washington, exactly. So with President Trump taking office, we weren’t sure what his priorities would be and we have a lot of issues in Washington that are of crucial importance to us and are worth tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars. And with a whole new cast of executives, all these secretaries are going to be making decisions that affect our industries, our companies, our employees, and we don’t have somebody here working in the governor’s office that is able to and has the capacity to do that kind of lobbying in Washington. We are lucky to have a firm – Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck – I always get the names confused, but we’re lucky to have them, which they’re the – I think the second or third largest lobbying firm in Washington. They’re based in Colorado. You look at the number of projects we need federal support on with transportation, agricultural support, education grants -
RW: So just to be precise, the hiring of this outside lobbyist was directly related to the Trump Administration?
RW: It’s not something you had done, for instance, to interact with the Obama Administration?
JH: So when the Obama Administration first came in, Federico Peña, the former mayor and the former Secretary of Transportation was on his transition committee. So he set up meetings for me with Secretary Ray LaHood and I got kind of a personal introduction to a number of those cabinet members.
RW: And that kind of a relationship didn’t exist with this new administration? The lobbying contract you have now for about $200,000 is to work on a number of issues at the federal level. This is again, with the Brownstein firm and I was surprised to learn that this firm actually your liaison with the congressional delegation as well.
JH: I wouldn’t call them our liaison. They facilitate the communications between our different agencies in the state government and all of our congressional delegations. That’s very useful because we don’t have anyone in my office that is calling Senator Bennet or calling Senator Gardner, checking in with them on a frequent basis, whereas things are changing so rapidly that that kind of communication is very useful, but that – I look at that as a peripheral – I mean, that’s a small part of what they’re doing. What they’re really doing is getting me in front of Attorney General Sessions for an hour, which they did back in, I think, March.
RW: In which you – your staff talked about marijuana, among other things. Immigration, I know, is an issue, that this is helping you track healthcare reform, as you mentioned, support for the solar industry. I want to ask about a missed opportunity for you earlier this month. You took the rare step of calling a special session of the legislature. Lawmakers convened for a few days to address what leadership says was a mistake in a bill that passed last session. It took away marijuana tax money from several arts and cultural organizations and the transit agency in Metro Denver. In the special session, Republicans rejected any attempts to mend that. It left a lot of people wondering what kind of groundwork you did or didn’t do before calling this session. Is there any truth to the rumor that you had a handshake agreement with Republican leadership, specifically Senate President Kevin Grantham, that his caucus would help fix the error?
JH: Well I think there was some miscommunication there on all sides and I think we had assumed that the information we’d received and the communications we’d gotten led us to believe that this was something that could be resolved fairly easily, and so we picked the date and went ahead and did it.
RW: You heard that from Republican leadership or you heard that secondhand or…?
JH: Yeah. Well we heard from Republican leadership, but oftentimes, you have it – one conversation and then the conversation evolves as time goes on, and both sides gather input from different constituencies, and sometimes things change. Well in this case, they changed.
RW: Did you have that handshake agreement with the Senate President?
JH: Maybe it would be a high-five agreement. I’m not sure you’d call it a handshake agreement, but certainly we’d been led to believe that this was something that would be well-received or wouldn’t be a big problem. I wouldn’t – let’s take – let’s strike “well-received” from the record. I don’t think any of us had any illusions that anything would be well-received. No one likes to make a mistake and it was the whole notion of having to get this resolved rapidly, which – I mean you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars every month that’s not resolved and revenues that these folks – that their voters had voted for.
RW: What do you think changed?
JH: I don't know. I mean, I don’t – that would be pure conjecture.
RW: You’re not going to speculate on this, then?
JH: Yeah, exactly.
RW: Well do you think that the mistake is now just permanently a part of how things operate in Colorado or do you think in the coming session, this can be fixed to help these arts organizations’ transportation districts?
JH: Well, I think that we will try to do everything we can to facilitate that kind of resolution. It’s hard to say what – how they’re going to respond. I have a responsibility to try and bring the different sides together and make sure that if there are issues, we get them resolved, and obviously, I didn’t do a good enough job at that or else we would’ve gotten something done in the special session.
RW: So you hold out some hope for the new session, I suppose, is that what I hear you saying?
JH: Yeah. Yeah; no, I hold out a lot of hope. I think this is – again, we made a – no one – I think it was an important point to recognize is that every single person, every comment – everyone I talked to, Republicans and Democrats, every comment I saw in any media, admitted that we’d made a mistake, that this was not the intention, and I think that – now it’s just a question of, “Is there – are there constitutional issues? What is the right way to fix the mistake?”
RW: When you say, “Are there constitutional issues,” Republicans during the special session specifically took a hard line on TABOR. They said the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in Colorado means that lawmakers can’t restore or change a tax without voter approval, that it’s voters’ responsibility to repair this. Senator Grantham accused you of asking lawmakers to skirt TABOR in this. Is that what you were asking them to do?
JH: No, I don’t – I certainly don’t think so and I think now, we understand that we have a burden of proof and we’re going to out there and try and demonstrate what the law really does say.
RW: Do you regret calling the special session?
JH: There were some benefits in that sense of we got – everyone admitted that it was a mistake and everyone admitted that we ought to figure out – try and figure out some way to solve it, but we spent $50,000 now. When you’re losing these nonprofits out of $500,000 or $600,000 a month, $50,000 didn’t seem like that much, but we didn’t get anything done.
RW: To a federal level controversy now about Trump Administration officials using private planes on the taxpayer’s dime. The health secretary resigned because of this. The EPA chief, Scott Pruitt has also been criticized for a trip to Colorado in August. He went to visit the Gold King Mine with you and other officials. That’s where an EPA crew triggered a toxic spill a few years ago. It’s been reported that your office offered him a ride on the state plane to get him to the meeting on time. What exactly was the communication like between the two staffs? Do you know why he declined the ride?
JH: I think they were worried – they were far enough away from where our plane was that the additional delay – we wouldn’t have been able to have time. We had a press conference scheduled in Durango. So he was worried that we would not have time to get up to the mine, really see it firsthand and get back to the press conference, and truth be known, we probably would have been twenty minutes later and we probably wouldn’t have been able to go to the mine, and it’s worth pointing out that at the mine, Administrator Pruitt said what all of us really wanted him to say, was – which was that the EPA recognizes their mistake and said that they would take responsibility.
RW: It sounds like you don’t think that this was irresponsible on the Administration’s part.
JH: I really don’t.
JH: I don’t think it was irresponsible.
RW: It strikes me, though, that if he had said yes to the state plane, it would’ve given you some time to speak privately with the EPA administrator.
JH: Trust me, I was lobbying as hard as I could to get him to our plane.
RW: What would you have liked to have said?
JH: Well certainly, I would spend a fair amount of time talking about the Gold King and we didn’t have time for this when we were at the mine, but I would have liked to go on further and say, “All right, here are these other mining districts we have. Here are some of the mineral concentrations that we’re seeing coming from these century old workings. How can we work together to address it?” and it’s not just Colorado. These are a couple thousand serious pollution sources all over the Rocky Mountain West.
RW: Governor, thanks for being with us.
JH: Always my pleasure. Thank you, Ryan.